Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 4

Before we begin, a bit of a flash-forward. Since returning from the IFP conference I've continued to take advantage of learning opportunities back in Rochester. I've been taking some classes in how to make movies with a DSLR, how to use the animation program After Effects, how to format a book for self-publishing, and how to write a novel in 30 days. (The latter is just in time for National Novel Writing Month.)

But a couple weekends ago I reached a point where I thought – you know what? Learning and absorbing and recharging is all well and good, but there comes a point where you gotta start producing. I've drank enough and it's time to pee. (Maybe not the most tasteful metaphor, but oh well.)

There must be something in the air (hopefully not the smell of pee), because yesterday IndieWire posted this article describing filmmaker Ava DuVernay's keynote speech at the Film Independent Forum voicing similar thoughts:

“You're in info-gathering mode. You come to these gatherings and think, "Am I interested in this? Can I do this? What is this about? What is this whole independent film thing? How do I get it done?" ... I rarely meet people who tell me what they're [actually] doing. I often meet people who ask, "Can you help me?" or "How do I do this?" ... All of the time you're spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you're not spending time working on your screenplay ... All the time you're focusing on trying to grab, you're being desperate and you're not doing. You have to be doing something.”

So soon enough, I'm going to be doing something. I'm going to have DVDs of Saberfrog for sale at the Buffalo Film Expo this coming Sunday. I'm going to see if National Novel Writing Month can be an opportunity to make progress on my spin-off novels. And I'm in the early stages of getting some of my old films remastered. So I need to finish this series of blog posts that I started last month, so I can have next month clear for other projects.

So anyway, stuff I learned on Day 4 …

#5. It's now legal to raise money in the way that people have been doing anyway.

On September 23, it became legal for producers to publicly solicit investments for films. Presumably this is in response to crowdfunding, through which people have been, you know, publicly soliciting investments.

#4. Crowdfunding money counts as income, NOT as donations.

During a soft-money panel, panelist Cameron Keng raised various legal issues regarding crowdfunding that he had previously outlined in a Forbes article called “Could Kickstarter's Policies Trigger An IRS Tax Audit?” This article is well worth bookmarking, but Keng's strongest statement during the panel was that the money you raise by crowdfunding is income, not donations. You will pay tax on it, and if you make a mistake then you will get an IRS audit. If the person giving money is getting something in return, such as a DVD or a T-shirt, then it's not a donation. Even getting credit in a film can be argued as getting value.

Also, fellow panelist Dianne Debicella of Fractured Atlas, pointed out that a fiscal sponsor can hold the money for you for the next year so that you don't pay tax on it in the current year. The panelists plugged their blog, Filmonomics, where more info about the economic issues of filmmaking is available.

#3. Information about digital projection formats is actually available.

Panelist Graef Allen from Dolby Laboratories gave a panel on how DCP (the modern digital format that has replaced 35mm for theatrical exhibition of films) actually works. She said the slides from her presentation were available at Sundance's Artist Services website. I went there and couldn't find them (let me know if you can) but fortunately http://www.thefilmcollaborative.org/blog/2013/01/the-independents-guide-to-film-exhibition-and-delivery-2013/ has much of the same information.

DCP is a collection of digital files, which are shipped to theaters on a physical hard drive. A composition playlist (CPL), which is basically an XML text file, determines what combination of video, audio and subtitles to play. The drive containing a DCP can hold 4 or 5 different dubbed/subtitled versions of a movie, and the theater will play whichever version they booked.

The video (JPEG 2000 codec, aspect ratio 1.85 or 2.39) and the audio (WAV files, uncompressed, sample rate 48kHz, 24-bit depth, 5.1 audio) are separate files, with a container file in .mxf format. If you want subtitles, those are written in a separate format called CineCanvas XML.

To prevent piracy, DCPs need an encryption file called a KDM in order to play. The DCP is shipped to the theater by a courier (such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL) on a CRU Dataport HDD drive, and the KDM is sent by email.

Converting your video to DCP can be challenging due to a variety of technical issues. If your source video has an HD aspect ratio, or isn't 24 frames a second, or if the audio isn't properly calibrated for cinemas (too loud or quiet), conversion will be difficult. Also, watching the movie from beginning to end on its drive is essential for testing.

If I understood the presentation correctly, a common workflow for transferring a finished movie to DCP is going from your original format (which may be tape or QuickTime) to DSM (digital source master) to DCDM (digital cinema distribution master, where individual frames are separate uncompressed TIFF files in XYZ format) to JPEG 2000.

If you're lost by now, it might not help to add that the color space is DCI P3, mapped to XYZ. But we're all going to have to learn this stuff, since 100% of theaters are supposed to be digital-only by 2015.

#2. Artwork is important for publicity.

A panel on publicity artwork ran home the point that indie films often neglect to generate art materials, or at least decent ones. (Guilty.) You need to look at the two or three days when your actors are in costume and makeup on the principal set, and set aside half a day with a good photographer to get group shots and individual character shots. You should get shots from the front, the side, and a three-quarter view.

In addition to simply having the necessary materials, you should make sure they send the right message for the film. If it's a comedy, the artwork should be funny. You need to think about the logo, font, photographic style, and overall feel. Figure out what audience you're aiming at, and what would appeal to them visually.

#1. Again, know your audience.

A couple panels that I missed most of due to a schedule conflict had a couple good nuggets that stuck with me. David Larkin, CEO of the indie film portal GoWatchIt.com, pointed out that the much-criticized gatekeepers in the film industry are less powerful now, but the downside is that without their help you have to find new ways of finding your audience. He said “don't make the film for an audience, but know who the audience is.” One of the producers of the music documentary Sound City said that you need to consider what is unique about your film, and what are the assets that will bring it attention.

By this point in the week my brain was getting full, but I still had one more day of learning ahead of me. (Or half a day, since I had a train to catch)

To be continued ...

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